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My Dinner With the Future
monsters
catvalente
Someone was discussing My Dinner with Andre on my friends' list this morning, which got me to thinking about the film. I'm sure a decent percentage of you have seen it--if you haven't it's on YouTube, and for all its issues is a fascinating movie that you really can't help talking about afterward. Even ten years after seeing it for the first time. Even longer.

The back of the napkin pitch is that My Dinner with Andre is a filmed conversation between Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory over a fantastic dinner. While Wallace Shawn has gone on to need no introduction, Andre Gregory is mostly known to people my age as the guy who had dinner with Wallace Shawn. He was an experimental theatre director and actor who had an existential crisis and went a-wandering, and when he came back, this film is more or less what he had to say about it. Now, there is a lot of postmodern-o-rama going on with the extent to which Wally and Andre are or are not playing characters or themselves--that's the sort of thing one expects, really, from an experimental director. In the end, I'm not sure it's even on the top ten list of important things about this film.

Now, when I first saw Andre I was about 20, and I adored it. I was practically slackjawed through the whole thing. I had just never seen anything like it, and it was a secret ambition of mine (and maybe stil is, I can't tell, ambitions are like old teeth, sometimes you lose them and you don't notice until you stick our tongue into the place they used to be and they're gone) to make a movie like that, but with two people my age, in my world. Because Andre is most definitely not of my world, and a product of its time. In many ways it is hopelessly dated. In many ways it is not. But I'm getting ahead of myself. I am not yet born.

My Dinner with Andre was made in 1981, which is really only a decade off of the most turbulent part of the sixties, and in many ways, the movie is about a major figure of that era dealing with existential PTSD. It's about trying to grab ahold of some kind of authentic experience that feels real, in the wake of all that, in a world that no longer contains that sense of revolution, but capitulation. Andre's argument is basically about seeking out experience that forces you out of yourself, into other states of consciousness. Wallace likes his coffee and his electric blanket and finds reality there.

Now, when I was 20, I thought Andre was awesome and Wallace was a tool. I think now that teenage years, at least for a certain brand of American teen, is a microcosm of the sixties--it's when you sleep around and do drugs and experiment with religion and sometimes magic, and are convinced you personally are going to change the world. Early twenties, too, I guess. But coming off my personal sixties I felt like Andre spoke for me to some extent, trying to recapture that intensity of feeling. I don't think it's an accident that Andre Gregory was a young man in the sixties, so that his nostalgia is wrapped up in longing for the vigor and fever pitch of a younger man.

But when I watched it again while living in Japan, I was horrified by Andre's position and much more sympathetic to Wallace. Of course this is part of why the movie is so amazing, even if its content is problematic--there's so much in there. I found myself disgusted by a rich man sitting there with his rich man's food telling me what was real and what wasn't, that I had to go to Bulgaria and make the peasants trip out in the forest with me just to have a fleeting sensation of authenticity (nevermind the hellacious cultural privilege involved in hauling villagers with shit to do into your personal pantomime) and lookig down his nose at his friend's ability to find the sublime in a cup of coffee and the ability to stay warm in the winter. Gregory is a bit of an adrenaline junkie, I think, seeking that spiritual high over and over, burning out his brain to maintain it, when really, you can't live all your life on those heights, especially if there is a cost to other humans to get you there. Of course Wallace Shawn, though less well-off, was no less privileged--can you imagine these days making any kind of living as a little-known playwright in New York? It was another New York in 1981, certainly, when the cold was a serious issue, and everything darker and stranger, more apocalyptic. But during that same era. Samuel Delany was experiencing the sublime in gay theater houses, so even there I'm not too moved by these two icons of cultural hegemony moaning about the death of the sixties in their high-class restaurant and saying shit like:

You see, I think it’s quite possible that the nineteen-sixties represented the last burst of the human being before he was extinguished. And that this is the beginning of the rest of the future now, and that from now on there’ll simply be all these robots walking around, feeling nothing, thinking nothing. (Andre)

I mean, holy shit. That looks so much worse in print than it sounds coming out of a doe-eyed, empathetic actor's mouth. I can't think of anything more emblematic of the worst of those Boomer excesses of arrogance and solipsism than the idea that after 1969, humanity itself was extinguished and nothing else that ever happened was real or important, and everyone from then on, even people not lucky enough to be born at that precise moment/place/class that would make them eligible to participate in those counter-cultural movements are unreal, unhuman robots. Wow. I mean, it sort of takes the wind out of you. I was 2 years old when this movie came out. What does that make me? Unthinking, unfeeling? And what a way to think of the future, as a wasteland utterly incapable of living up to the past? Even just 12 years past?

I don't even think they're talking about the social revolutionary air of the sixties. Mainly what they talk about is art, and theatre, and their souls--they don't often use the word, but that's what they mean. What it means to be human. If it means tripping out in the woods in eastern europe or writing plays in NYC while hoping a cold cup of coffee is still good the next morning. And to think they don't even know how bad the 80s are going to get, about AIDS or the death of manufacturing or Iran Contra. They don't even know what New York is going to look like in five years, let alone what it looks like now. They are insulated from so much by their money, their race, their privilege.

And part of me wants to say: what you boys need is the internet.

They wouldn't agree, at least then. I think they'd be horrified by the internet, in the way that folk often are, because they see the ways it disconnects us, and changes our mental processes, and makes us feel unreal. Those are dangers, yes. We unfeeling, unthinking robots create such cold things. But it also creates the islands of light that Andre talks about, those secret, real/unreal spaces where we can be so human and genuine. And it puts you in contact with people outside the bubble of privilege those two lived in. It is an intense bubble--at one point Andre talks about his wife and how she stays home and takes care of their kids while he galavants around the world looking for ways to feel real. Again, holy shit. It must be nice, to have no responsibilities to your children or marriage, (but still have them! It's not like it's not a choice!) and a maid to take care of your life while you follow your douchey bliss. These days she'd blog about it, and we'd all know their entire marriage before the film came out.

I think a lot of us worry about...not necessarily feeling real, but feeling rooted, grounded, part of the world. Part of something. It's not unimportant, the crises they're talking about. And do I feel real and grounded when I feed my ducks and tie my blueberry plants to stakes with some yarn I spun myself? Yes. But no more real than when I hold a book I wrote in my hands for the first time, or talk to a room full of people about it, or make a connection through this blog. Art and coffee. It's possible to feel ok in the future, to not be a robot, and these days I feel like this comic sums up so much about life in the future that was completely unpredicatable in 1981--and maybe if it were two science fiction writers talking instead of two uber-realist playwrights, they wouldn't feel so hopeless, so helpless in the face of the oncoming robot-soul apocalypse. I do think science fiction prepares you to be strong in the future. Maybe that's its best destiny.

And of course, shallowly, I want to have erudite amazing dinners like that. But really, I prefer my world to theirs. Even with all the badness in it--1981 was not a bad-free year. Even with everything, I do not want their sixties, or their world.
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ambitions are like old teeth, sometimes you lose them and you don't notice until you stick our tongue into the place they used to be and they're gone

Ach. That's a truth with long fingernails, pierces skin as it grips.

I absolutely love this. Thank you. And I can't wait to watch it.

My sister loves, loves My Dinner with Andre and has since high school, when she started writing letters to Wallace Shawn.

Alas, I seem to have misplaced my .gif of that episode of The Simpsons with the My Dinner with Andre video game. :(

Drinks around the round table at the Algonquin must be had. Discussions must be undertook. Smart, erudite people must be invited.

Also, drinks.

I remember trying to come up with some kind of bimonthly thing like that back in the day...

Yeah, I have never wanted the 60s. My Dinner with Andre made me want to gouge my eyes out with a fork. Even the first time I saw it in Film Lit 101, the screaming pretention of the concept made *me* want to scream.

I could appreciate it for the tour de force that it was and how it changed the game for a lot of filmmakers.

But gods, I did not relate. At all.

I prefer the internet and the future and YES, yes, YES, science fiction prepares you to be strong for the future.

I love the concept actually. Like, I said, I'd love to redo it with two SF writers, and maybe...a dinner they grew in their own gardens, cooked together, beer they made, and talking about the world we do relate to.

Man, two actors and a real video camera. It takes so little these days, but is still so hard.

One of the most common comments I hear about the movie is, "When I first saw it, I empathized more with Andre. I see it now and I empathize more with Wally."

I wonder if this particular evolution was part of the movie's design, or simply a happy accident of its creation: that the two of them mirror two phases of life, and that it's OK to be an idealist for a little while but not expect that position to provide you with lifetime employment (so to speak).

I also admit that at every second I was bracing, bracing I tell you, for Wally to burst out "InconCEIVable!" Such is the price of watching The Princess Bride first.

ALSO!

If not already mentioned, check out Andy Kaufman's surreal dig at the film, My Breakfast with Blassie. Kaufman fans will split their sides, although I confess everyone else may simply stare and stare and stare.

You see, I think it’s quite possible that the nineteen-sixties represented the last burst of the human being before he was extinguished. And that this is the beginning of the rest of the future now, and that from now on there’ll simply be all these robots walking around, feeling nothing, thinking nothing. (Andre)

I mean, holy shit. That looks so much worse in print than it sounds coming out of a doe-eyed, empathetic actor's mouth.


Wow. I don't think I would want to watch anyone trying to make that sound good. I wonder what his kids thought of it.

I saw the film when I was 19, and had a very similar reaction to yours when you were 20, and while I haven't seen it since you brought up enough memories that I completely agree. It's remarkably easy for young privileged white college students to be incredibly clueless about our privilege.

I miss the fact that progressive ideas were far closer to being mainstream in the late 60s and (especially) the early to mid 70s. However, I'd not give up the internet for anything, and we now have same sex marriage in several states, and a nation where half of all law and med school grads are now female. The 60s & 70s look fairly dubious in comparison.

Also, I hadn't read you essay about SF and the future before, and my reaction also is GO TEAM CYBORG!

I haven't seen Andre - in fact, aside from the aforementioned Simpsons reference and a vague sense of it being a byword for pretentiousness, I'd barely heard of it. But you make me want to watch it, because I love all of the ideas you touch on here. (Also, I love your "SF is the future" essay. Go Team Cyborg, indeed! says the girl who is informally a robot.) Looking for an authentic experience that feels real... I know what that feels like.

You are the best robot I know. *hugs*

I've seen the movie only once (you showed it to me), at a relatively late age. And I didn't like either one of them. But the movie itself was breathtaking!

Also, I LOVE LOVE LOVE that "SF Saves" essay. And want to marry it, or at least the girl who wrote it.

"You see, I think it’s quite possible that the nineteen-sixties represented the last burst of the human being before he was extinguished."

This so makes me rage and makes me want never to see this movie even though I understand it's supposed to be good. I've followed the retreating, marching, solopsistic butts of the Baby Boomers my whole life, and while technically one myself, I was born late enough in the Big Bad-a Boom to be completely late to the party every time. My first political memory wasn't JFK or MLK, but Watergate, for example.

To quote Joel from MST3K, who's about my age: "I asked my mom if I could go to Woodstock and she said 'No, Joel, you're only nine years old!'"

I think I need to go watch "Mindwalk" again and calm down.

Funny, this and Mindwalk are the only movies we own on VHS. Unfortunately, Mindwalk reduces me to rage as well, for its simplistic, poetry-shitting-upon view of the world, and for how they swallow anything the scientist character says without question.

Of course Wallace Shawn, though less well-off, was no less privileged--can you imagine these days making any kind of living as a little-known playwright in New York?

Dunno about the 80s, but in the 70s he made ends meet by working at a copy shop. (I know because he photocopied one of my mother's manuscripts once.)

I have not yet seen this movie. But oh yes, in reading you say that the internet both disconnects and makes these interstitial places of light where we connect in ways we would not have otherwise? OH YES THIS.

Until now, I hadn't heard of My Dinner With Andre. I've been watching it on YouTube since reading this post and generating many thoughts that I am sure I shall share at some point soon.

I too have found my reactions to the movie changing over time (I probably saw it first when I was 20 or so, now am 32). However, I don't know that I'm quite at a point of really sympathizing with Wallace Shawn's point of view. I still do love some of the ritualistic stuff Andre Gregory talks about doing, but it does seem rather superficial in a way now, at least the way he seems to have approached it. I wonder what I'll think in another ten years.

I recently discovered that Andre Gregory was behind a sort of interactive stage production of Alice in Wonderland, which my parents followed around NYC for awhile in the early 70's. I would have loved to see that.

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